“I’d Like a Diet Coke and French Fries Please”
Eating Disorders in Middle Aged Women
I remember lying on a dirty bathroom floor (well I guess that is a given) in a small restaurant in Berkeley. I was fifteen and my best friend was sitting on my stomach as we tried to zip-up my pants which were tight to begin with, but wouldn’t zip after eating lunch. I must admit this wasn’t the first or last time I tried to squeeze into something that just didn’t fit. This period was followed by control-top pantyhose under everything (including shorts) to not only look thin, but tan too. The most recent trend has been Spanx and the plethora of styles to make every part of our body sucked in and thin while not breathing.
I am overweight – perhaps described as an hourglass figure – but with an extra 30 pounds. Weight issues are something I have dealt with my entire life. I am not alone – a majority of women from adolescence on have struggled with weight and self esteem issues. Often these issues become eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and others (such as chewing and spitting out food).
Eating disorders are often thought of as a struggle that much younger women and teenagers face, and therefore midlife eating disorders have been ignored or unseen. A study from the Center for Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that 13 percent of American women 50 or older experience symptoms of an eating disorder; 60 percent report that their concerns about weight and shape negatively affect their lives; and 70 percent are trying to lose weight.
If you or someone you know is experiencing perimenopause or menopause (if you aren’t …you will), it may seem that no matter how hard you try, your weight increases. Research has found that hormonal changes related to estrogen can wreak havoc on your weight. This weight change, along with other life transitions you may be facing, including your children leaving the home (“Empty Nest”) or returning, changes in your marriage/relationship, work and retirement, aging parents as well as the recognition of your own aging can cause increased difficulties in your functioning and an increase in eating disorders. Cynthia Bulik, the director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, believes ageism is overlooked as a midlife trigger as women are trying to preserve an air of youth. We realize we are no longer looked at the same way we once were which can be a painful experience. Many of us laugh and spill our pain with friends over a glass of wine, yet for many, the pain is deeper and dangerous issues may arise, including an increase in depression. It is also important to note, the health risks of an eating disorder increase as the body ages, which can cause significant distress to one’s body.
So what can we do? As women, we intellectually know that we are more then the sum of our parts but emotionally we often begin a downward spiral of body image which affects our overall sense of self (“The Body Myth”, Margo Maine, Ph.D).
Can we change society’s beliefs that only the young and thin matter? I wish I had a miracle and fairy tale ending…I don’t. I can only share what many of us are feeling, and that if you are struggling, you are not alone – there is help available and there is no shame in reaching out. We have your back!